US set to accuse Iran of violating chemical weapons treaty

Charge will not trigger immediate penalties

By NICOLE GAOUETTE AND ELISE LABOTT, CNN
CNN screenshot

(CNN) - The Trump administration is set to accuse Iran of violating the international treaty that bars the use of chemical weapons.

The White House notified lawmakers on Friday that it would declare Iran is violating the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention because it has kept the equipment and facilities needed to produce them, not because it is actively making or using such weapons.

Two senior US officials tell CNN that the charge will not trigger immediate penalties, but could be used as justification to file claims against Iran with international organizations going forward.

The administration's decision was first reported by The Washington Free Beacon.

The push is part of the Trump administration's campaign to exert maximum economic and political pressure on Tehran in the hopes of isolating the regime and, officials say, changing its behavior. This month, the White House reimposed all sanctions against Iran that had been lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear agreement, against the objections of other signatories to the international pact: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, European Union, China and Russia.

US 'concerned'

Analysts have said the Trump administration's campaign, which lists 12 changes Iran must make, amounts to regime change in everything but name. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an October interview that the United States wants "to restore democracy there."

The announcement is timed for a special meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, set for November 21 to 30 in the Hague, to review how well the treaty is being implemented. The conference is held every five years, making it the fourth since the treaty entered into force in 1997.

Iran is a signatory to the chemical arms convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Last year, when the United States addressed the OPCW, the representative did not mention Iran.

But Trump administration officials have recently been hinting at the move. Yleem Poblete, the assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, has referenced "Iran's chemical weapons program" as recently as November 2, as if it is an ongoing, active project.

"The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism globally; has publicly stated 'Death to Israel,' our ally and friend; and represses the freedoms of the Iranian people. We are also concerned about its chemical weapons program," she told students at South Miami Senior High School.

Poblete is closely allied with national security adviser John Bolton, who has taken a hard line on Iran and advocated for regime change.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said it might be hard for the United States to make the argument that Iran should be punished for maintaining the facilities and equipment needed to produce them.

"You can't prove a negative and the ability to produce chemical weapons," Kimball said. "Almost every country has it because almost every country has a chemical industry. There are certain prohibited chemicals, but this is a dual-use technology."

Chemical weapons are a highly sensitive issue in Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, from 1980 to 1988, the United Nations determined that Iranian troops were gassed by Saddam Hussein's military six times. The security council did not condemn Iraq's actions. At the time, Iraq was backed by the United States.

Kimball also noted that the United States is the only country in the world, aside from Syria, that is a party to the 1997 treaty but hasn't eliminated its stockpile. The United States is not scheduled to neutralize or destroy its stockpile until 2023.

"The Iranians are going to say this is the pot calling the kettle back," Kimball said.

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